01.18/Squirrels

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Featured for January: Getting squirrelly

When I head out for one of my photo hikes I never know what kind of birds I might see and photograph, if any. Some days I get lucky and there are an abundance of birds. Other days there’s little to photograph.

But there is one constant: Regardless of the season or the weather conditions, I always see squirrels. These forest rodents are plentiful in any area with trees. They are constantly climbing, chasing, digging and eating. And I’ll stop to get a photo when I find one in a nice setting.

But it’s a different story when that setting is our backyard, where every winter becomes a battle of wits as we attempt to protect our bird feeders from squirrels.

If the feeders are left unprotected, our neighborhood squirrels will eat all the food. That’s not good for the birds or for my wallet. So we take steps to deter the squirrels.

We’ve tried the variety of devices available in stores — domes, platforms and other obstacles designed to keep squirrels from reaching feeders. These work for a short time, but we watch through the window as the squirrels study the obstacles and, through trial and error (and occasionally a bit of teamwork), eventually defeat them.

We now use combinations of obstacles, both store-bought and improvised, that we rearrange whenever it looks like the squirrels are about to solve the puzzle. It’s become a game — Are We Smarter than a Squirrel? — and provides winter entertainment as we watch the squirrels’ repeated efforts to reach the feeders.

Central Ohio, where we live, is home to three types of squirrels: the eastern gray squirrel, the fox squirrel and the American red squirrel. 

The eastern gray squirrel seems to be the most common in our area. This squirrel has mostly gray fur, but it can have a brownish color. The underside is white and it has a large, bushy tail. Gray squirrels are typically between 16 and 22 inches long, from tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The body alone is 9 to 12 inches long. 

The fox squirrel is the largest squirrel found in Central Ohio, measuring anywhere from 25 to 40 inches long, from tip of the nose to tip of the tail. The body alone is between 18 and 28 inches long. Fox squirrels, in most regions, have brown-grey to brown-yellow upper bodies with a typically brownish-orange underside.

The American red squirrel is the runt of the bunch, measuring about 12 inches from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. Their heads often seem large, out of proportion with the body size. The squirrels are rusty, reddish-brown most of the year but they turn slightly grayer in winter. The underside is white. American red squirrels are more territorial than eastern gray or fox squirrels and are extremely vocal, chattering or barking when something (or someone) encroaches on their territory.

I haven’t seen any black squirrels in my area, although I have seen them in northern Ohio, in Washington, D.C., and some other areas. The black squirrel isn’t a separate species. Instead, it’s a somewhat rare mutation that occurs in both gray squirrels and fox squirrels. 

I have seen a white squirrel, just once, in our backyard on Christmas Day 2016. We watched it as it attempted to reach our bird feeder a few times that day. We had never seen it before and we haven’t seen it since. I guess it was just visiting relatives for the holiday.

White squirrels, like black squirrels, are genetic mutations. White squirrels are typically gray squirrels with one of two genetic aberrations, according to the UntamedScience website: “The first is albinism, caused by a mutation on a gene that codes for pigmentation. Albinos have red eyes. The other is a white morph, caused by a different gene. It is a naturally occurring trait of eastern grey squirrels that is very, very rare.

I couldn’t tell if the squirrel in our yard had red eyes, but the white fur really stood out. And that’s a problem for the squirrel, because the white fur makes it easy to spot for hawks and other predators. 

I add a new featured gallery the first of each month. The numbers in the gallery title represent the month and year it was featured. Last month’s featured gallery, with photos of sunrises and sunsets, has been moved to my featured gallery archives.

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